January 8, 2005

"that one insouciant phrase"

Natalie is back and has a nifty post on several books. Including this on Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, with reference to the way so many history books just assume that political unity is a good thing, and that Alexander's failure to create an enduring empire was a tragedy...

...He discusses (on pages 412 –417) the fact that, because China was a unified empire, just one lousy decision, the result of a forgotten power struggle between two court factions, was enough to scrap China’s ocean–going fleets. Contrast that with the way that Columbus, living in a Europe of competing nations, could importune king after king until he hit on someone to back his voyage over the ocean.

Diamond writes:
“Europe’s barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.”

“The real problem in understanding China’s loss of political and technological pre-eminence to Europe is to understand China’s chronic unity and Europe’s chronic disunity.”
I fell in love with that one insouciant phrase, “chronic unity”. It turns on their heads a hundred Ladybird books, a thousand editions of Blue Peter and a million billion trillion historicist books and newspaper columns...

I haven't read Diamond's book, and now Natalie has made it sound very intriguing. Thanks!

There is a similar vein of thought in Wm. McNeill's fascinating book The Pursuit of Power : Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000. He makes the same point about the huge advantage of European disunity, especially in regard to military tactics and technology.

He sees the invention of cannon creating large "gunpowder empires" (Ottoman, Mogul, Ming, Tokagawa, Muscovite etc) across much of the world. These empires had no use for further military invention or change, and no great need for a flourishing mercantile economy.

...The one exception is Europe, where new fortifications were invented to stymie artillery. These had the effect of preserving many small states from consolidation into one empire. A crucial moment was a siege of Pisa by Florence in 1500, where shattered walls were replaced by earthworks, which were discovered to have the advantage of absorbing cannon balls harmlessly. These quickly developed into the expensive star-shaped fortifications typical of 17th and 18th Century Europe.

...In western Europe, on the contrary, improvements in weapons design continued to be eagerly sought after. Whenever anything new really worked, it spread from court to court, shop to shop, and camp to camp with quite extraordinary rapidity. Not surprisingly, therefore, the equipment and training of European armed forces soon began to outstrip those of other parts of the civilized world. Western Europe's emerging battlefield superiority became apparent to the Ottoman Turks in the war of 1593-1606, when, for the first time, Turkish cavalry met disciplined infantry gunfire. The Russians discovered a similar gap....in the Livonian War (1557-82)....

Even more disruptive than any arms race was the need by these smallish states to allow their merchants to flourish in order to grow enough of a tax-base to pay for the new military technologies. A Chinese emperor could tax and regulate merchants to keep them from growing wealthy beyond their proper humble station. A European king who tried that would see his country's trade melting away, and mysteriously re-congealing in Amsterdam or Venice or London....

Posted by John Weidner at January 8, 2005 2:05 PM
Weblog by John Weidner